Lambros Petrou
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit!" — Aristotle

Keeping the brain engaged

During the past few weeks I have been feeling that I am not as engaged as I want to be at work, and neither at my outside of work activites. I decided to do some kind of retrospective, going over the past few years to remember what kept my brain excited and engaged. Not really to my surprise, but I realised that it’s not always about projects at work, nor hobbies, nor friends; it could be any of them.

When at times I was working on exciting projects at work, I left the office but my brain was still crunching, even subconciously. While riding the London Underground home I might have been evaluating different solutions to the problem at hand, or thinking about new features to improve the product, or trying to think through what went wrong in that solution that should work but didn’t. It wasn’t rare that I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night with a brain flash about a software bug I had overlooked, even ones I wasn’t even aware they existed before going to bed, along with its fix which was quite obvious at that moment.

This happens a few times with my hobbies as well, like when I play volleyball. I get flashes later of what I should do better, things I overlooked on the opponent’s side, or how the game situation demanded a certain play but I played differently. Discussions with friends are also a good trigger for these unconcious sudden revelations, especially when we discuss ideas and projects about potential startups. We start from a simple pitch, and end up with business plans and features that need years to implement — talk about a long-term vision. Or when I am evaluating different companies or funds to invest in the stock market, and trying to think of how they would evolve in the future, areas they would expand, potential fall-throughs. And in all these cases the majority of the thinking is done after the fact, not while it’s taking place, but at times when my brain is able to drift freely.

Coincidentally, last week I stumbled upon the following essays by Paul Graham that really stroke a cord and resonated immediately with all the above.

What Doesn’t Seem Like Work

Starts talking about how his father loved solving math problems, how he never got bored of them, and concludes with:

It seemed curious that the same task could be painful to one person and pleasant to another, […]. I didn’t realize how hard it can be to decide what you should work on, and that you sometimes have to figure it out from subtle clues, like a detective solving a case in a mystery novel. So I bet it would help a lot of people to ask themselves about this explicitly. What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem like work to you?

The Top Idea in Your Mind

The first paragraph nicely summarizes what I described in the intro of this article:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Then at some point he mentions the following, referring to the unforced thinking our brain does unconciously.

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

And concludes with (emphasis is mine):

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

A Projects of One’s Own

This is an awesome article and I felt what Paul describes here a lot during the past few months, missing this excitement and satisfaction of working on projects of mine. Projects where you are in control, you do them because you like and want to, without useless and unnecessary processes or people slowing you down.

Putting some excerpts below that I find very interesting.

Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It’s more fun, but also much more productive.

There is something special about working on a project of your own. I wouldn’t say exactly that you’re happier. A better word would be excited, or engaged.

You feel as if you’re an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.

People who’ve never experienced the thrill of working on a project they’re excited about can’t distinguish this kind of working long hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms, but they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s why it’s a mistake to insist dogmatically on “work/life balance.” Indeed, the mere expression “work/life” embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct. For those to whom the word “work” automatically implies the dutiful plodding kind, they are. But for the skaters, the relationship between work and life would be better represented by a dash than a slash. I wouldn’t want to work on anything I didn’t want to take over my life.

If you can find the right people, you only have to tell them what to do at the highest level. They’ll handle the details. Indeed, they insist on it. For a project to feel like your own, you must have sufficient autonomy. You can’t be working to order, or slowed down by bureaucracy.

[…] Ideally we can have the best of both worlds: to be deliberate in choosing to work on projects of our own, and carelessly confident in starting new ones.

Conclusion

My take-away from the above is very simple. I need, and want, to maximise the time that my brain is engaged in things I like, things I get excited about, and things I get satisfaction from. At work I need to chase certain projects and avoid others. With hobbies I need to drop the ones that are just time-wasting and focus on the ones that bring excitement. And with side projects, well, I need to restart doing!